Hilary Lane, 29, a nuclear engineer living in Van Ness, has gone roomie hunting four times in six years while renting a two-bedroom unit. And each time, it takes her four to five weeks to find the perfect fit.
“Since you’re living with this person every day, it’s not a process I like to rush,” she says. “Some people just want a person to fill the room and pay the rent. Not me. I’m looking for the right match.”
Swinging through the vines of Craigslist can be a little scary, especially for first-timers. But being prepared for interviews, understanding how to read people and knowing what renters themselves want from the hunt can lead to a good roommate or even a great friend.
Lane’s process starts with placing an ad on Craigslist, after which she chooses the top five to 10 respondents to interview over the phone. She asks questions about their work schedule and daily routine and if they have a significant other who would be spending time at the apartment. (“I don’t want to end up with a surprise live-in third roommate,” she says.) Those who seem serious and financially secure move on to in-person visits at the apartment, where Lane can gauge how their personalities mesh.
This in-person step can be crucial for finding a comfortable fit. “We have so much more experience in dealing with social situations and picking up on social cues than reading through résumés and applications,” says Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist at Princeton University. “It’s hard for someone to form a judgment or even a gut feeling just looking at a piece of paper.”
Anne McNulty, a 27-year-old who works in communications, benefited from following her in-person instincts and found one of her best friends through a Craigslist roommate pairing. When McNulty was looking for someone to fill the second bedroom in her Columbia Heights apartment, she put up a sparse post on Craigslist that read something like, “Clean young professional looking for a clean young professional,” and hit the jackpot.
“I just got a really good vibe,” she says of meeting her now former roommate, Lindsay. “I was like, ‘I definitely want to live with this girl.’ ” She’d met with a couple of other candidates, but something clicked when Lindsay came to tour the place. “A lot of gut feelings involved,” McNulty says.
Those gut feelings are pretty valuable. “We really do form judgments of people extremely quickly,” says clinical psychologist and Express’ advice columnist Dr. Andrea Bonior. “We react to body language, we react to how they look, how they speak, within a matter of seconds.”
Gut feelings can help renters steer clear of potential predators, but they can make it easy to miss important details while wading through an interview. “First impressions can be accurate, but when they’re not they might drive us to make poor choices,” Bonior says. If a renter’s first feeling is favorable, they can miss red flags later on in the conversation.
To back up her gut check, McNulty also checks potential roommates out on Facebook. “It’s not like most other relationships, where you’re open-minded,” she says. “I’m signing a contract to live with you for at least a year; I’m going to find out every bit of information.”
Fleming Roberts, 30, thought she would have trouble finding a pet-friendly spot for herself and her dog, Bonnie. But she knew she had found her new home when she saw her now-roommate’s hilarious ad, which included specifications for “required awesomeness” and said live-in partners were only allowed if they came with a tall, single brother. And, she says, “it specified that having a dog was a plus. Bingo.” She moved in to the Columbia Heights townhouse just a few days after she responded to the ad. Her gut instinct paid off: One doubles ugly-cry session over “Long Island Medium” later, and she and her roommate are thick as thieves.
Beyond finding TV shows and local takeout spots, new roommates should get on the same page when it comes to talking about their roomie relationship status. Rather than waiting for someone to be bugged by dishes left in the sink or a surprise houseguest overstaying their welcome, “I always say that it is much easier to preemptively talk about how you’re going to handle problems,” Bonior explains. Be it a weekly coffee date to check in or a shared agreement to hold house meetings whenever one roommate wants to talk things out, “the more you can spell out beforehand, the better.”
Roberts’ preferred method for handling roommate disagreements? A healthy dose of humor: “You can get over someone disturbing your sleep or drinking your wine if they can crack a solid joke about it.”
Start the paperwork: Some roommates sign a contract separate from their lease to set guidelines for their shared space. These roommate contracts can include stipulations as mundane as agreeing to take out the trash on alternate Fridays and as absurd as dictating what colors roommates can use to decorate the living room so as not to alter its aesthetic balance. Unless drawn up carefully with binding consideration before the lease signing, these agreements are meant to maintain respect for one another’s wishes and a balance of peace in the apartment, not for holding up in a court of law. A roommate contract probably can’t get renters out of a lease with an unruly roommate but it hopefully will encourage renters to compromise and be considerate of the people they’re sharing a space with.
More about renting in D.C.: